The prisoners and the free

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“Christ … has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:6).

Fremantle Prison, Perth, Western Australia – now no longer used as a prison.

Recently I joined a tour of historical Fremantle Prison and was told about such notorious criminals as Sydney Sutton, Eric Edgar Cooke and, worst of all, David (and Catherine) Bernie. They committed horrific crimes and the young tour guide seemed to delight in shocking us with lurid details. Their criminal behaviour, it was implied, was at least to some extent due to their background – abusive parents, bullying because of a physical deformity, incest, alcoholism. No doubt there is truth to that. But at root, as we know, is the fall into sin which, Romans 1 shows, is something common to mankind. Hence we could say in relation to these criminals, as a preacher some centuries ago reportedly said, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. These criminals deserved the punishment they got, no doubt about it. But it’s worth remembering that by nature everyone is wicked and lies under God’s curse – a curse that can only be lifted through Christ and by means of the faith and renewal worked in us by the Holy Spirit. Unless that happens, we remain prisoners of sin and Satan despite a veneer of civilisation.

Who are the Free?

There have been some escapes from Fremantle Prison over the years. While on the run, the escapees probably rejoiced in their new-found ‘freedom’. But what is freedom? Looked at in the light of Scripture there are many people who walk around in freedom and yet are prisoners of sin, while there are people in prison who are free. Paul and Silas were thrown into prison in Philippi but prayed and sang hymns because they knew themselves to be free in Christ. John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos yet wrote to believers who were being persecuted and facing physical imprisonment as people who would receive the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Despite oppression they were free, for, as Christ told His disciples: if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36). But all those who persecuted them, and who thought they were free, were actually still prisoners of Satan.

The big prison of life is sin and true freedom is experienced by those who have been set free by Christ’s blood. Not that believers don’t sin anymore, but they seek to avoid sinning and know that their sins have been paid for through the sacrifice of Christ. Who are the free? Free are those who confess their sins and believe in Christ for the complete forgiveness of their sins. Free are those who, renewed by the Holy Spirit, flee from sin.

The late Prof. B Holwerda, in a sermon on Revelation 1:6,[i] says that it’s through the power of faith that we see the situation correctly: “What is freedom? It’s not that you can walk around freely, for such people can be slaves of sin, kept in bondage by God for destruction. But truly free are those whose freedom from the bonds of slavery have been purchased by Christ—and that includes those locked up in prison.

We need to look at this, says Prof Holwerda, in the light of Scripture. Who does God see as free? Who does He see as not being bound, not being shackled, not being locked up? Those who believe in Christ. Who are those He sees as being the real rulers and as fulfilling the priestly office in life? Those who belong to Christ. Free are those who avoid sin.

Kings and priests

Moreover, a king is not the one who sits on the throne, has a host of courtiers and leads an army, but the one whom Christ has reinstated to his original position. King is one to whom God has again given the glory and who has again been empowered by God in this life; one who again rules over all things there where God has placed him—not in order to glorify himself but in order to dedicate his life to God.

For not only are Christians free; they even rule! Who are those who truly rule? Not the emperor with a mighty army. Nor the democratically elected rulers sitting comfortably in government. The true rulers are we who are of Christ the Lord to whom has been given all authority in heaven and earth—the King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules the earth for the sake of His people; he hears their prayers and answers them. He has made His children kings and priests to God.

That’s why John, banished to Patmos, doesn’t say: now that I’m stuck here on this island, I’m helpless and can’t do anything anymore; and those Christian believers imprisoned for the faith can’t do anything either. No, he says: not only are we free, but they’re kings and priests to God the Father (Rev. 1:6). And that, says Prof Holwerda, is the concrete result of Christ’s love. If we ask who the rulers in the world are we are inclined to point to political figures who wield power – a communist dictator, or the president of the USA. Nor are they necessarily free. But John says: it’s the congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ that is truly free. For Christ has not only set us free from the prison of sin but also to reinstate us as kings who rule; we are the influential ones on the world; we share in His anointing (LD 12). Through our submissiveness to the Lord, and our speaking to Him in our prayers, we help steer the way things are going in the world.

Today we’re seeing a lot of persecution, not just in communist and some Muslim countries but increasingly in Western countries. What does the future hold for Christ-believers in countries that are increasing turning against Christianity? We don’t know. But this we do know: in the past Christ shed His blood in order to purchase us and set us free. And in the present He makes us kings and priests, even if we’re locked up. And in the future right into eternity, the kingdom and the power and the glory belongs not to the rulers on this earth but to our God! That’s not just a wish, a prayer. It’s the reality, says John: “to Him belongs the glory and dominion for ever and ever”.

That’s how John can triumph through faith and also lift the mood of the congregation above the difficulties of the present. In his days they’re groaning under the oppression of the Roman Caesar who appears to have the glory and the dominion. And yet John denies what appears to be a reality in the strongest terms. For the glory of the emperor might shine today but tomorrow it will fade; his dominion exalts itself today but tomorrow it will collapse. But Christ Jesus, who shed His blood and died, has the glory and dominion for ever and ever. He knows that everlasting life is with Him and not with the emperor; in the world there’s only one who has eternal glory, and only one who has indestructible power: Christ, who loved us and still loves us; He is and remains the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Now of course all this sounds very nice, but tired and worn-out Christians might retort: we don’t see anything of Christ’s glory and dominion. What you say are nice words that we hear you speak, but it all seems so illusory. It’s like distant music—so beautiful, but intangible. What we’re experiencing is the real and concrete and the terrible dominion of a hostile ruler. We don’t see anything of Christ’s dominion and glory; what we daily experience is the power and pride of Caesar.

Christ is already coming with the clouds

Are they right to speak this way? Well no, says John, because Christ is truly ruling and is coming with the clouds. We tend to think: Oh, that refers only to the last day when Jesus will appear on the clouds; that’s little comfort for us right now when we’re being buffeted and harassed by antichristian forces. Yet John remembers Christ’s words to the Sanhedrin: from now on you will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven. From now on. That’s not something of the distant future, says Holwerda, but the reality of today. Just think of how the Psalms are full of references to how God makes the clouds His chariot, that He is surrounded by thick clouds and darkness. Think then of a thunderstorm: as the clouds darken and threaten and finally break out in a storm leaving a trail of destruction—that’s the presence of God.

We might call them natural events or natural disasters, but the Bible knows of no natural events occurring on their own, adds Holwerda; the Bible sees God directing every event in nature. When the fields are green and the flowers bloom then this is the Spirit of God, the breath of the Almighty. He is also the One behind the titanic force of storms and lightning and thunder. They all display His majesty and power. And in Scripture they come to symbolise something else. The sea becomes a symbol of the surging, moving, restless life of the people; and the storms indicate frightening chaotic powers; they reflect the tension and agitation in the world, the awesome clashing of those powers.

We need to see Christ behind it all, says Holwerda, and that changes everything. Not that we don’t shudder. John saw the ruthless powers of the emperor breaking out upon God’s people and the church being dispersed, scattered. Yet we know that through it all Christ, who has set us free from the dominion and slavery of sin and the devil, is coming. Even through the terrible persecutions, the awful attacks by antichristian forces, the hostility directed at the church, Christ is pressing world history on to His return; His majestic power governs it all. Despite the oppression and persecution and imprisonment, He has set us free, already now, and we will rule with Him over all creatures (LD 12).

Hence we can praise Him in the struggles of daily life, in oppression and in our suffering. He once purchased us, freed us from slavery to sin and Satan, and makes us kings and priests in the world, even if we are considered by those who are still prisoners of sin and Satan as contemptible refuse. We may be swept along by the terrible developments, the storms of life, but so are the ungodly rulers. Yet Christ makes of it all His majestic chariot. He governs all, and through it all…

The faithful He will ever
from wicked men deliver.
Light dawns for the upright;
in joy they will delight.
You saints rejoice in Him
and praise His holy name.
Extol His glorious might!
(Psalm 97:5 BoP)

 

[i] B Holwerda, “Ziet, Hij komt met de wolken”, Een Levende Hoop 1, Boersma, Enschede, 1953, pp. 3-16.